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Historic photos of a world that was

The Rebbe of Rimanov walking with chassidim.
The Rebbe of Rimanov walking with chassidim.

Mendy (my co-rover) and I would like to tell you a story.

In the Galician town of Rimanov, a little boy was born. His parents named him after the famous chassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745–1815).

Menachem Mendel’s uncle calmly strolls in a Rimanov soon to be destroyed.
Menachem Mendel’s uncle calmly strolls in a Rimanov soon to be destroyed.

Chassidic life in Rimanov had revolved around the rebbe, Torah study and the Jewish holidays.

Little Menachem Mendel’s childhood was cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland. By the war’s end, his familiar universe no longer existed. His cheder (Torah school), melamed (Torah teacher) and shtetl (hamlet) had been reduced to mere memories.

With suitcases packed, they are ready to go. But where?
With suitcases packed, they are ready to go. But where?

Mendel’s family lost their homes, but they did not lose their Jewish heritage. They found their way to a DP camp in Steyr, Austria, where they were to remain for a number of years.

Mendel and his schoolmates at the Steyr Torah school.
Mendel and his schoolmates at the Steyr Torah school.

During that time, Mendel was enrolled in an ad-hoc religious school that was a joint effort of Chabad chassidim and the Agudath Israel organization. Mendel was assigned to Rabbi Feldman’s class. A passionate chassid, Rabbi Feldman imbued his students with a love and dedication for Torah and Judaism.

Mendel after the war.
Mendel after the war.

Eventually, Mendel and his family relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Moving to America required many adjustments, but Mendel—now called Manny—never lost his strong Jewish identity. On the fertile shores of the USA, the seed planted in his soul had blossomed into a strong and healthy tree.

He, his brother, and the rest of the family became pillars of the Kenosha community. They opened a family furniture store. For miles around it was known that their store was always closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Manny and his brother are still very involved in Bnei Zedek Chabad, the local Orthodox synagogue. This Shabbat we had the treat of hearing him lead the prayers. His hauntingly beautiful Old World tunes made the services especially meaningful to us. Thank G‑d, Manny is able to ride his bike and lead an active and productive life.

Manny wearing tefillin.
Manny wearing tefillin.

Manny graciously shared his memories and photos with us, and we have decided to pass on the favor to you.

Mogilev, Ukraine, is a small city with a population of 35,000, a third of which had once been Jews. Most of the Jews are long gone, but Mogilev still boasts a small community of 250 Jews, some of whom have a decent vocabulary of Yiddish expressions. When two rabbinical students turned up this summer to visit, they were more than overjoyed.

We took three weeks this summer going ’round the city visiting, inspiring and listening to each and every Jew we came across. The climax of our visit was the beautiful Shabbat meal we shared with the locals, showing everyone how a real “nastayashe” (Russion for "genuine")Shabbat meal is supposed to be.

Before Shabbat commenced, all men strapped on tefillin (it was the first time for at least one man), and all the women lit Shabbat candles. One woman exclaimed emotionally, “I’m sixty years old and this was my first time lighting candles in honor of Shabbat!”

After the Shabbat prayer services, the traditional Shalom Aleichem hymn, kiddush over wine, and the breaking of the challah bread, it was finally time for the full-on kosher Shabbat cuisine.

Our kitchen help put together a fantastic Kosher Jewish-Ukrainian Shabbat feast.
Our kitchen help put together a fantastic Kosher Jewish-Ukrainian Shabbat feast.

For us it was a double celebration, as it was also Yaakov’s Jewish birthday. So as everyone tucked in to the fabulous food, all present filled their cups and charged their glasses in toast to the birthday boy, wishing him success in his coming year, and thanked us both for visiting and uplifting their congregation. They appreciated the fact that in the USA they are not forgotten.

The meal lasted late into the night, with singing, dancing, and a great time shared by all.

For the housebound who couldn’t make it to the meal, we even did a “kiddush on the spot for people on the go” in their own homes.

Friday afternoon, the tables are set and our 30 Shabbat guests are about to arrive.
Friday afternoon, the tables are set and our 30 Shabbat guests are about to arrive.

The happy sounds of Syem Sorok—a popular Jewish-Russian song—filled Lyuba’s home.
The happy sounds of Syem Sorok—a popular Jewish-Russian song—filled Lyuba’s home.

Please meet Lyuba. She was happy to meet us. She even offered us some fresh danishes that she had made herself. Or rather, like the good Jewish grandmother that she is, she stuffed them into our hands before we had a chance to explain that our special diet did not allow for them. Lyuba has all kinds of little pets in her house. She also has a piano upon which Sholom Ber happily banged out some familiar Jewish tunes. We think that the pets liked the music as well.

Lyuba would love to move to Israel, but until that happens she is here, and we are happy to have been here with her.

Jack and Simcha.
Jack and Simcha.

The other evening, we headed over to the Chabad-run restaurant, Shelanu, for dinner. As I walked inside I saw three tourists sitting at the corner table.

I had to squint to make sure I was seeing correctly, and sure enough, I was!

There, sitting in front of me, was my roommate from Stony Brook University, Jack Kurtz. (We had formed a kosher living suite in SBU. After finding six guys who wanted to keep strictly kosher, we petitioned the administration to give us a suite with a kitchen, which was kept to the highest kosher standards.) We both jumped with joy! He leaped out of his seat and we embraced in a long overdue hug. It’s been well over a year since we’ve seen or even spoken to each other last.

Jack comes from a religious Syrian Jewish family in Brooklyn, and plans to go to medical school in Israel after he graduates this upcoming year. Besides for discussing the Talmud that we had last learnt, we spent the next few hours enjoying a meal together, reminiscing and catching up.

He was in Prague only for two days, and was leaving at five in the morning. He and his friends are traveling around Europe, and are headed to Vienna next. I invited him and his friends to come join me in Yeshiva Tiferes Bachurim in Morristown for a Shabbat, and he readily agreed! It was decided that the week we both get back to the States, before he starts his new semester, he and his friends will come for a weekend.

The hashgacha pratit (divine providence) in this event is unbelievably clear to me: I had only one Jewish roommate in my entire college career, I happened to be assigned to Prague, he happened to walk into this kosher restaurant out of a couple other choices, the restaurant happened to be opened later than usual that night, so we just “happened” to bump into each other. Thank G‑d!

Simcha Evan Finkelstein

We were told that most Koreans speak English. Apparently we met the ones who do not. Here, we are communicating via Google Translate.
We were told that most Koreans speak English. Apparently we met the ones who do not. Here, we are communicating via Google Translate.

Our little bookstore—the only Judaica shop for miles around.
Our little bookstore—the only Judaica shop for miles around.

Our Shabbat table set for a feast.
Our Shabbat table set for a feast.

Our guests schmoozing before Shabbat begins.
Our guests schmoozing before Shabbat begins.

On the way to a visit. We were probably the first people to have ever studied Torah on this spot.
On the way to a visit. We were probably the first people to have ever studied Torah on this spot.

No matter how far we roam, tefillin connect us to our Father in Heaven and our people.
No matter how far we roam, tefillin connect us to our Father in Heaven and our people.

At 4:30 in the morning, some of our minds were as fuzzy as this cellphone picture—the only evidence of our spiritual adventure.
At 4:30 in the morning, some of our minds were as fuzzy as this cellphone picture—the only evidence of our spiritual adventure.

A young non-Orthodox man had flown into Seattle for a business trip with one thing on his mind: besides for his business transactions, which would affect his company in a huge and improved way, he had promised himself not to miss saying Kaddish for his mother, who had recently passed away.

Prior to his trip he called us up, and we had agreed to take him with us to the closest synagogue that would be holding services three times a day. That was to be our arrangement for every day except the day that he was leaving, as his flight was at 7 AM and holding prayers in time for him to catch his flight would mean starting at 4:30 in the morning.

We picked him up from his hotel for the first time. By chance—or rather, by fate—we put the wrong address into our GPS, leading us to a Jewish college dormitory that houses a synagogue on the first floor. Not knowing that it was the wrong place, we went in asking about services. They were quite amused, since the only time they use the synagogue is maybe on a Friday for a nice Shabbat meal. We left in a hurry just in time to catch the minyan (prayer gathering) at the right location. During the four days he was with us, he kept on inquiring if we had organized a minyan for the Friday of his departure. Not wanting to get his hopes up, we sorely said it does not look possible; there was no one willing to get up at 4 to be at services by 4:30.

Thursday morning, as we were driving to synagogue, he asked, “What about those boys we met from the dormitory? I’m sure we could arrange a minyan there, and I’ll even give a little something to whoever comes.” Later on we drove to the dormitory and told them about the man’s predicament. It didn’t take long ’til we had seven agreeing boys who said they would probably still be up then anyway. The minyan was set for 4:30 AM at their place.

The next morning, as we rolled in, so did they. We looked around and no one had a pair of tefillin. We started asking around, and most of them didn’t know what tefillin were. They had agreed to attend the minyan not knowing what it was or how to do it—like going to a show not knowing what to expect. To them, their Jewish life consisted of being bar mitzvahed at age thirteen, by getting called up to the Torah and having a party, and that was it. With time tugging at us, we quickly put tefillin on and said the Shema with each boy, which was quite an activity for the ones who had never done it before, and then the businessman said Kaddish. We explained some aspects of Judaism, danced and sang to celebrate the new bar mitzvahs, told over some inspiring stories, got everyone’s numbers to keep in touch, and were on our way.

This is not just a story that is being told over by a roving rabbi. All these stories that you read are small sparks of Judaism waiting to ignite into chapter-books and a whole new world. For each of these seven boys, their story is just beginning. They are about to embark on a journey they have never really known before.

Who knows where the stories will end?

Aryeh in tefillin for the first time in over 50 years.
Aryeh in tefillin for the first time in over 50 years.

During the course of the day we went to various stores and business, but we hadn’t bumped into any Jews yet. Before we left the plaza we decided to stop at one last business: Allstate Insurance. The name on the door didn’t seem Jewish, but we decided to give it a try.

As soon as we walked in, the man behind the desk looked up and sang out with a smile: “What are two Jewish boychiks doing in town?”

We quickly took our places around his desk. He began to speak. For two hours we hardly said anything; we were just fascinated by what we heard. His Hebrew name is Aryeh. He was born in the early ’40s and he grew up in Levittown, PA. His parents were religious Jews, and there was a small traditional community there.

With tears in his eyes, he told us that we brought him back memories from his childhood.

He began describing Friday afternoon shopping for Shabbat with his mother and little sister. First they would stop at the shlachthoiz (Yiddish for slaughterhouse), where the shochet (ritual slaughterer) would expertly slaughter the chicken that they selected. Afterwards they would take it home to salt out the blood. The next stop was the fish store. They picked up a carp, with which they would make their gefilte fish. Life in the olden days featured a horse and wagon that would pull up in front of their house with fruits and vegetables. And, of course, ice was delivered for the icebox that served as a refrigerator.

Sadly, Aryeh lost his parents at a young age, and hadn’t kept up with his religious upbringing. Aryeh wrapped tefillin with us, and related that that last time he had done so was when he was a young teenager.

A few days later, we visited him again to say goodbye before heading back to New York. He told us that, as a result of his recent reawakening, he and his wife have decided to visit Israel for the first time in his life.

After a long and tiring but successful day, Eli and I (we are both named Eli) headed to our lodging to retire for the night. After making something quick to eat to fill our starving, food-deprived stomachs, we prayed the afternoon service—a prayer like none I had ever experienced before. The extreme gratitude to G‑d for helping us find and connect with so many of His people had really moved me. But when I got to the Shema Koleinu blessing—where you ask for your own personal request—I was stumped: What could I possibly need? I’m here doing what I love, helping Jews connect with their Judaism.

Then it dawned upon me: It just so happened that, although we had met many people, for various reasons we weren’t able to help any Jewish men put on tefillin that day. So with all my heart and concentration I asked G‑d that before the day ends we should be able to help at least one fellow Jew with tefillin. After we finished praying, although it was late and we were both exhausted, we decided to go back out there and try to meet with at least one or two more Jews. So Eli jumps into the driver’s seat, while Eli takes up the shotgun duties and plugs the next address into the GPS.

A few minutes later we arrive at a house. We ring the bell. A lady approaches. We greet her warmly, and she returns warm greetings. Then we ask the million-dollar question: “Are you Jewish?” She tells us that she is not, but she wonders if there is something that she could help us with. I ask her if there is anyone living here who happens to be Jewish, and she responds, “Why, yes, my husband is Jewish.”

After greetings and a short explanation as to why we are here, his story tumbles out:

“I went to yeshivah as a kid, but had a bad experience with an overly harsh teacher who turned me off from the whole thing. I left Hebrew school before my bar mitzvah, and have always felt terrible about not having gotten one. When I moved to Bel Air I looked into the synagogues, hoping to find somewhere comfortable where maybe I would complete my studies as an adult and celebrate a late bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, none of the local places were what I was looking for, so here I am: a Jew who has never had a bar mitzvah.”

Seizing the opportunity, I tell him it’s never too late to get a bar mitzvah. “Whenever a Jewish man over the age of 13 dons tefillin for the first time, it is his bar mitzvah. As a matter of fact, we can do one right now!”

“Really!?”

Wearing tefillin for the first time in his life, he carefully read the Shema in Hebrew and English before even considering taking them off. As we removed the tefillin, the sun sank in the west, and we wished him a mazel tov on his bar mitzvah.

He wanted to do more, and asked what he could do for us. We spoke about the blessings we recite before eating as a way of thanking G‑d for the food we have. I gave him a card with all the blessings for the various foods, and showed him how it works.

When he said, “What else can we do?” I pulled out a mezuzah. We put up the mezuzah on our way out.

It was tough, but we said goodbye for now.

Reaching the car, I turned to Eli and said, “You know what happened to me as we were praying before?” Now he stared at me and said, “What do you think I was praying for?”

His name is Stas. We asked him if he was Jewish, and he said "Shalom." He also showed us that he has on his phone some songs by the chassidic singer Mordechai ben David, which we of course sang together.

We gave him a brochure about mezuzah and told him we have some mezuzahs with us if he'd like to purchase one for his home. He said he'll think about it; he's going out of town tomorrow, but when he comes back, he wants us to meet his siblings.

We then invited him to have a drink, and we made a brachah (blessing) together. We showed him all the kosher food we had brought with us, and told him which of them can be purchased anywhere. We gave him a brochure on kosher food. He seemed very interested.


He took us about two blocks away to show us a building that's now a restaurant. It used to be a synagogue.

A roving rabbi helping a Jew don tefillin on the streets of Old Prague a number of summers ago.
A roving rabbi helping a Jew don tefillin on the streets of Old Prague a number of summers ago.

It was already after 3 PM, and we’d been standing outside the Maharal’s Altneu Synagogue for hours, but Leibel and I decided to stay a few extra minutes at our Judaism booth this past Friday afternoon.

We saw a couple and asked if they were Jewish. They responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” We invited the young man to don tefillin. He told us that it’s been years since he last wore tefillin, but he was happy to do so now.

As I was wrapping him up, his friend asked us where we were from. Leibel answered that he’s from Canada and I’m from Long Island, New York.

Their faces lit up. The girl told us that they’re both from L.I. as well! She asked what town, and Leibel told them I was from Jericho. She told me that the person I was wrapping tefillin with was also from Jericho. (Until then I had a large smile on my face, but now I started to laugh.) He asked which street I grew up on, and then told me his street name. We grew up less than three blocks away from each other.

After finishing the Shema prayer, he asked my full name. After hearing my family name, he told me my sister’s name and said, “That’s not your sister, is it?!” I responded in the affirmative. Apparently he and my sister knew each other quite well. Both I and the couple I had just met recognized the hashgacha pratit (divine providence) involved. We spent the next few minutes chatting about all kinds of things, including Shabbat, Jewish dress, and the role Jews play in this world.

And then we hastily ran off to prepare for Shabbat.

Simcha Evan Finkelstein

In <i>tefillin</i> for the first time in his life.
In tefillin for the first time in his life.

We left our apartment not knowing what exactly where we were going. We figured it would be a good idea to look for a mikvah. (You see, chassidim are particular to immerse in a body of “live” water before prayer. Such a pool is called a mikvah. In a pinch, a pool or a sauna can also do the trick for the pre-prayer dip, but not for other functions.) So we started asking people if they knew of a cheap place. A taxi driver told us about one, ripped us off on the fare, and dropped us off outside a sauna. The prices were high and non-negotiable! OK, not surprised!

So, we started heading back by foot—the long way. After 15 minutes or so, we saw some people hanging outside of some sort of building/bar/thingy. We went up to a guy with a beer in his hand to ask him about a pool, and he started going on about a pool . . . and the other sauna . . . and the lake . . . the river . . . etc. Before we left, we of course asked him if he was Jewish. He replied that his mother’s mother was Jewish. He did not know that that made him Jewish as well, but we were happy to fill him in.

If you do not speak the language very well, make sure that you have good books that can do the talking for you.
If you do not speak the language very well, make sure that you have good books that can do the talking for you.

The guy had never heard of Shabbat or tefillin, but did hear that there’s a special “pension” offered just for Jews: Moshiach!

We explained to him that his putting on tefillin will bring Moshiach that much sooner, and he graciously complied. We invited him for Shabbat, and asked him if he thinks he’ll make it. He answered: “Of course! I'm on pension; I've got all the time in the world!”

We had nothing to write our contact details on. Thank G‑d for cigarette boxes (but not for cigarettes).
We had nothing to write our contact details on. Thank G‑d for cigarette boxes (but not for cigarettes).

Kaua‘i, Hawaii. What is it about this place?

Even the name, the street signs, the local paper, have an evocative vibe. All those H’s, W’s, and U’s make the cadences of Hawaiian sound like it’s the wind talking. It all has this exotic feel to it: something faraway, involving islands, and just foreign enough.

That’s definitely how the tourists feel about this place. Of course, even Kaua‘i hasn’t evaded the smothering embrace of Walmart and Starbucks, keeping the intrepid visitor still nestled in the reassuring arms of Americana. Yet Hawaii has managed to maintain its own unique identity and what seems to be an ability to capture the American imagination (full disclosure: I ain’t American). Israel is the only other place I’ve been to where applause breaks out when the plane comes in to land.

The weather, the beaches, the lush scenery, and relaxed lifestyle definitely have something to do with it, but to me, much of the allure of these islands (and probably most islands, come to think of it), and of the buzz going through the plane before touchdown, has to do with just being different and somewhat alien. Human nature is hardwired to be drawn to things exotic and unknown.

In fact, so much of what we do, and so much of what you'll read about on this blog, is about just that. We try help people explore the unknown; we forge friendships with complete strangers; we do our best to expose them to ideas and practices that seemed foreign moments ago, to help them uncover forgotten Jewish identities. We celebrate impromptu bar mitzvahs with people we met minutes before.

Shortly after a particularly uplifting encounter, we received word of the awful, awful death of 9-year-old Leiby Kletzky back in Brooklyn, at the hands of someone he had met only minutes before. Leiby was murdered by a stranger he had met on the street.

I was stunned, by the horror of the story, its incomprehensibility.

Of course the analogy is superficial, to say the least, but what does this story say for the allure of the unknown, for airs of mystery, for random acts of kindness, and for reaching out to strangers to create life-changing friendships? What does this story tell me about what I am doing here? I just want to shut the door and go back to bed.

Is the unknown something to be feared, or explored? Can a stranger truly be a friend waiting to be met? Are we supposed to try run away from the world, or to go out and change it?

Of course, balance is key to everything in life. We proceed with caution, we are careful, and we protect the vulnerable. But at the same time, we are hopeful and open, and most times the world turns out to be a wonderful place.

But there is a much more obvious lesson to be learnt here. I know this probably isn’t the first or last time you’ll read this, but the ever-astute Chief Rabbi (and now) Lord Jonathan Sacks, in describing the Rebbe’s work in the context of the post-Holocaust era, once wrote: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe has undertaken the most daring spiritual initiative ever . . . to search out every Jew in love as they were once hunted down in hate . . .”

Or as the Talmud, quoted by my ever-astute co-rover, Mendel, puts it, paraphrasing Leah’s declamation of the righteousness of her son Reuben and its striking contrast with the wickedness of her brother-in-law Esau: “See the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law.”

There is evil lurking in the world, sometimes even in the heart of Man. Sometimes we’ve got to fight it, but most of the time, we’ve just got to do the exact opposite, doing as much good as possible.

Aloha.

Boruch Werdiger

Here are some pics of another great day at camp. As you can see, the weather is great and the spirits are high.


Pontoon biking is a bit harder than some of the kids expected at first, but we all had a fantastic time. These young fellows got a hands-on lesson on unity: when we all pedal together, we can all reach goals that we could not reach on our own.

Hi,

Not much time to talk. We just want to let you know that we started our day camp. Yesterday we went biking and did lots of other fun things. Today’s plans include bowling, a water balloon game and other activities.

Here are some pictures of the kids praying and learning before we headed out for the day. Enjoy!

Yaacov leading the kids in a quiet game.
Yaacov leading the kids in a quiet game.

These young fellows know that everything in life comes from G‑d.
These young fellows know that everything in life comes from G‑d.

Ready to have a great day, but first he needs to pray.
Ready to have a great day, but first he needs to pray.

Learning comes alive as Lipa leads an interactive Torah workshop.
Learning comes alive as Lipa leads an interactive Torah workshop.

Mendy Singer and Mendy Dalfin standing at the entrance of the 100-year-old Congregation Bnai Zedek Chabad of Kenosha, WI.
Mendy Singer and Mendy Dalfin standing at the entrance of the 100-year-old Congregation Bnai Zedek Chabad of Kenosha, WI.

Sometimes G‑d taps you on the shoulder and smiles, and the only thing you can do is smile back.

Yesterday was our first day in Kenosha, WI. Just after we landed, Mendy (both of us are named Mendy) felt his cell phone vibrate. It was an unfamiliar number from Washington State. Now, we had gone roving in Washington together (read about that here), but that was two summers ago.

There was an elderly lady on the phone. She reminded Mendy that we had visited her home in Spokane, WA. She went on to say that since our visit no one had ever touched her as deeply as we had. She had been thinking about us for the past few days, so she decided to give us a ring—two years after our visit!

A journalist snapped this picture of Mendy Dalfin and Mendy Singer when they were in Spokane, WA.
A journalist snapped this picture of Mendy Dalfin and Mendy Singer when they were in Spokane, WA.

The past few months had been very challenging for her. She had been through a tough bout with cancer and had survived. Remembering that Mendy and I had encouraged her to light Shabbat candles on Friday evenings, she wondered if we could once again fill her in on the details. The true gentleman that he is, Mendy happily took it upon himself to call her every Friday afternoon to remind her to light the candles.

As the conversation progressed, she mentioned that she wanted to give some charity to thank G‑d for her recovery, but did not know where to find authentic Jewish humanitarian causes. Mendy suggested that she give to some charities in Israel that he knew to be doing good work.

After that phone call, we were floating on clouds, having just gotten a crystal-clear message that our meetings can often have a much stronger and longer-lasting impact than we could ever imagine. It was incredible to see G‑d’s hand in our work. For us, this really drove home the foresight and wisdom that the Rebbe had when he envisioned the Roving Rabbis program so many years ago. One visit with an isolated old lady in Washington continues to bear fruit for years to come—and there are thousands like her all over the world.

Spanning the Panama Canal. Photo credit: Dirk van der Made
Spanning the Panama Canal. Photo credit: Dirk van der Made

We are in Panama. Here are the highlights of our first few days:

Someone upstairs is certainly looking out for us. Bogged down with extra luggage, we made our international flight within 45 minutes of takeoff. The guy who checked us in told us that he “never does this” and then proceeded to whisk us past the 300 person security line.

Shabbat in the local synagogue was beautiful. It was the Shabbat before a major wedding in this community, and the excitement was palpable. It was inspiring to see how joyous everyone was in anticipation.

On Friday night we hosted 150 Israeli backpackers for a Shabbat dinner, replete with spicy salsa, stirring songs and suspenseful stories. People were very moved. Some of the guests joked that if they had only known how “damaging” such a dinner would be for their secular lifestyles, they would have never come.

Last night was the wedding. We sang under the chupah (wedding canopy), mingled with people, and made ourselves useful. We also helped open the new kosher kitchen in the Riu Hotel - the kitchen will remain kosher for all upcoming Jewish events.

Tomorrow we are starting a two-week day camp for some lucky Jewish kids. We plan to do some cool projects with them. One idea is a tiled unity mural. With G‑d’s help we'll keep you posted.

After camp we plan to explore other parts of Panama to find more Jews.

We hope to send you pictures when we are able.

We snapped this shot of Dekel's friend with our mobile phone.
We snapped this shot of Dekel's friend with our mobile phone.

Sometimes a bad thing can turn into the catalyst for something good.

We are stationed in Oshawa, Ontario. There is a shopping mall here called the Oshawa Centre. Like most malls, there are Israelis in this mall selling Dead Sea salts and other things. One of these Israelis—we’ll call him Dekel—is a traditional fellow. While he may not keep kosher, he knows that he is Jewish and would never dream of eating pork. This week Dekel ordered a meal at one of the eateries at the mall food court. Horror of horrors, a few bites into his meal he discovered that he was eating pork—something that he had never done in his entire life.

Distraught and in tears, Dekel looked up and saw Mrs. Borenstein, the co-director of the closest Chabad center, walking by. Mrs. Borenstein had not been to the mall for a very long time. In fact, the last time she was there was with her husband who had come to read the Megillah for Dekel and his fellow merchants this past Purim holiday. Recognizing her through his tears, Dekel rushed over and unburdened his heart, sobbing about his terrible mistake.

The next day we came to visit Dekel and his friends. We had a long chat about how every step back must lead to a giant step forward—that way it is transformed into something good. After wrapping himself in tefillin, Dekel encouraged his fellow salesman to do the same. The fellow, who had not put on tefillin in many years, was so inspired by Dekel’s sincerity that he followed suit. Dekel then decided that from then on, no non-kosher meat at all—not just pork—would ever pass his lips again.

And that is how a bite of pork wound up bringing some Jews closer to Judaism.

A car-mounted google camera. (Photo: Wikimedia/Jon Delorey)
A car-mounted google camera. (Photo: Wikimedia/Jon Delorey)

Two unrelated events happened to us today. Did I just say “unrelated”? I’ll let you be the judge.

At 8:00 in the morning we met a young college-age person. In response to our query, he replied that “might be Jewish” and that he was “not entirely sure.” Well, we know that being Jewish is like being alive: either you are or you are not. He explained, “My parents were born to Jewish parents, but I do not do anything Jewish, so I do not really know what that makes me.”

To make a long story short, by the time we parted ways he had marks on his arm from the tefillin straps that he had donned for the first time in his life, and a very clear picture in his mind that he most certainly was Jewish—as Jewish as Moses, King David and the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

It was not too much later that we saw a car with a strange apparatus on top. It was a Google Maps car-based camera taking photographs of the neighborhood to be used for the Street View feature. We smiled and waved.

How do these two events connect?

I’ll let you decide.

A Chabad Lubavitch rabbinical student being swabbed by a Gift of Life volunteer at the central 10 Shevat gathering in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Binyomin Lifshitz
A Chabad Lubavitch rabbinical student being swabbed by a Gift of Life volunteer at the central 10 Shevat gathering in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Photo: Binyomin Lifshitz

Hi All,

This is RootedRabbi, the anonymous editor-rabbi who moderates the Roving Rabbis blog. My job is to track down the rabbis as they rove around the world doing mitzvahs and help them see that the ordinary things that they do are really extraordinary and interesting to our readers. Normally I kick off the summer season by writing about the guys who are about to hit the road. Today, I want to share with you a conversation that I had with a Roving Rabbi who will not be travelling anywhere. Here is the scoop:

Today, my friend Eli (our most avid readers may know him from a previous post) told me that he and his friend had been planning to travel to S. Luis Obispo, a beautiful stretch of California coast. The tickets were booked, the itineraries planned, and the Jewish books had been purchased. But they are not going.

“You see,” Eli explained to me, “this all began on the 10th of Shevat, the anniversary of the passing of thesixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and the day that the seventh Rebbe took his place at the helm of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The Gift of Life Foundation (a wonderful organization that helps people with leukemia and other diseases find much-needed donors) had set up a recruiting booth right near the Ohel, the resting place of both the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes, as well as at the central gathering for all Chabad Yeshiva students. Inspired by the Rebbes’ legacy of caring and love, my friend decided to be tested to be a potential donor.

“Just the other day, he got a call from the folks at the Gift of Life telling him that he was a match for someone who desperately needed his stem cells. As you can imagine, our plans for a summer on the road were immediately sidelined. After all, what greater mitzvah could there possibly be than saving a life?”

So for now, we are not sure if Eli will be able to share his stories this year, at least not the kind of stories one usually sees on this blog. But we are honored and proud that our Roving Rabbis are really living the Rebbe’s message of love and sacrifice for others—even when the view is just a hospital room.

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